Government has today set out its response to the consultation on Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), which closed in February this year.
We are pleased to see Government reiterate its commitment to mandating BNG, and that it will not introduce any broad exemptions from the scheme. It will introduce some narrow exemptions with which we are disappointed because, as is widely understood, biodiversity is in steep decline and all effort must be made to reverse this. In a world that continues to urbanise and seal the land with concrete, allowing seemingly small exemptions is death by a thousand cuts.
For small developments that will be subject to a simplified assessment process, we must stress that this assessment must be carried out by a competent ecologist. It would be inappropriate for a non-specialist to undertake this assessment.
Furthermore, we are extremely disappointed that Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) will remain outside of the scope of mandatory BNG. NSIPs are at a scale that they have disproportionately large impacts on the natural environment. They should be seen by Government as an opportunity to lead the way in delivering BNG and in realising the ambition of leaving the environment in a better state than we inherited it.
We are pleased to see that no developments will be excluded from the mitigation hierarchy.
The Government says that it will set 10% as the required minimum gain. This is disappointing as a 10% gain measured over time may still result in a loss of biodiversity due to the ongoing decline and the reality that some BNG projects will simply not succeed. Local authorities will have the ability to be more ambitious, but we will have to see if they do so given their continued under-resourcing.
We are very pleased to see that irreplaceable habitats will be outside the scope of BNG, as set out in our jointly developed principles and guidance, and that Government will take steps to direct development in ways that minimise or avoid biodiversity impacts in the first place.
Regarding District Level Licensing (DLL) for great crested newts, we are pleased to see that the Government will not mandate it at this time. As the Government response points out, CIEEM believes that the DLL approach is still unproven.
It is pleasing to see that Government has noted the risk of deliberate habitat degradation prior to planning permission being sought, and that this will be addressed through legislation and guidance on using baseline data. The detail and relative enforcement strength of this legislative underpinning will be critical. It is not clear how this legislation will manifest as the Government response also states that it will not introduce any new enforcement mechanisms for BNG, preferring instead to rely on the planning system for enforcement.
Government has set out that 30 years will be the minimum period for a compensation site to be maintained for. Ongoing funding and management will be critical to ensuring this is delivered and we are very pleased to see that there will be a publicly available register of compensation sites along with identifying the developments that are being offset. Hopefully the use of conservation covenants will help this process.
Given the high burden that BNG places on local authorities, Government must be transparent in how it will support the delivery of BNG. Adequate resourcing for local authorities will be paramount, ideally including in-house ecological expertise.
With Government and other stakeholders, CIEEM will continue to contribute to the ongoing development of the BNG process, including ongoing development of the biodiversity metric, setting biodiversity unit pricing, developing Local Nature Recovery Networks (LNRNs), integrating BNG with other planning processes, and the ongoing development of Environmental Net Gain.
We are pleased to see that Government intends to use our jointly published principles and guidance to develop statutory guidance and advice.
BNG offers many opportunities to benefit people and the natural environment, and CIEEM looks forward to working with Government and other stakeholders in taking BNG forward.